Egypt and Ethiopia are at loggerheads over a plan to dam the Nile River.
- By Keith JohnsonKeith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s acting managing editor for news. He has been at FP since 2013, after spending 15 years covering terrorism, energy, airlines, politics, foreign affairs, and the economy for the Wall Street Journal. He has reported from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and, contrary to rumors, has absolutely no plans to resume his bullfighting career.
Egypt and Ethiopia are butting heads over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a $4 billion hydroelectric project that Ethiopia is building on the headwaters of the Blue Nile, near the border between Ethiopia and Sudan.
Cairo worries that the megaproject, which began construction in 2011 and is scheduled to be finished by 2017, could choke the downstream flow of the Nile River right at a time when it expects its needs for fresh water to increase. Brandishing a pair of colonial-era treaties, Egypt argues that the Nile’s waters largely belong to it and that it has veto power over dams and other upstream projects.
Ethiopia, for its part, sees a chance to finally take advantage of the world’s longest river, and says that the 6,000 megawatts of electricity the dam will produce will be a key spur to maintaining Africa’s highest economic growth rate and for growth in energy-starved neighbors. The hydroelectric plant will provide triple the amount of electricity generating capacity in all of Ethiopia today. But the spat threatens to poison relations between two of Africa’s biggest countries.
"The construction of [the dam] could propel a new era of regional cooperation, but past history suggests it will more likely result in continued sniping between Egypt and Ethiopia," David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, told Foreign Policy.
The dispute has heated up again, after a fresh effort to iron out the differences at the negotiating table collapsed. Egypt has sought to get the United Nations to intervene, and reportedly asked Ethiopia to halt construction on the dam until the two sides can work out an agreement, which Ethiopian officials rebuffed.
"The upper riparian states have the right to use the Nile for their development as far as it doesn’t cause any significant harm on the lower riparian countries, and that is why Ethiopia is building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam," Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti told reporters in late February.
A former Egyptian irrigation minister said March 5th that Egypt is doing too little to forestall the dam, and highlighted the risks to the country’s water supply. Italy’s ambassador to Egypt has reportedly offered Italian help in mediating the showdown; an Italian firm is constructing the dam.
The dam has been a glimmer in Ethiopia’s eye since U.S. scientists surveyed the site in the 1950s. A lack of cash and Egypt’s strength forestalled any development — but that appears to have changed in the wake of the Arab Spring and Egypt’s three years of domestic political upheaval.
For most of the twentieth century, Egypt and Sudan divvied up the Nile’s water between them. A 1929 treaty with British African colonial possessions gave Egypt the right to more than half the river’s flow; a 1959 treaty upped Egypt’s share to about 66%. The rest was allocated to Sudan — while Ethiopia, whose highlands are the fount of most of the Nile’s waters, was excluded from discussions.
"It is only Egypt and the Republic of Sudan that consider the 1929 and 1959 agreements as legally binding on all the Nile River riparian states," John Mbaku of the Brookings Institute Africa Growth Initiative, told FP.
"The Ethiopians may have undertaken what appears to be unilateral action because of Cairo’s unwillingness to join other riparian states in renegotiating" those accords, he said.
Ethiopia began pushing back seriously after concluding its own water rights deal with other upstream nations, such as Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, in 2010. The protests in Egypt, the collapse of the Mubarak regime, and Egypt’s three years of domestic turmoil provided a key opening for Ethiopia. It laid the first stone on the construction project in the spring of 2011 and says the dam is now about one-third complete.
"With all of the chaos in Egypt, Ethiopia caught a break. It has clearly benefited from the distractions of the government in Cairo," Shinn said. In 2012, Sudan threw its weight behind the project, driving a wedge between the two downstream users of the river and complicating Cairo’s hopes to block construction.
The dispute over the Blue Nile dam is hardly the only case of water-driven tensions. Chinese control over the headwaters of major rivers in Asia, and ambitious plans for hydroelectric development, has sparked concern among a dozen downstream neighboring countries. Brazil and Paraguay locked horns for years over the massive Itaipu dam. Even Western U.S. states are squabbling over water rights to the dwindling Colorado River, especially important now that the region suffers a prolonged drought.
But Egypt sees the Ethiopian project as an existential threat. A government study concluded, "Water security is the gravest threat facing post-revolution Egypt." Former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi vowed last summer that Egypt would not lose "one drop" of Nile water to the Ethiopian dam, proclaiming, "Our blood is the alternative." Egyptian politicians were caught on camera last June urging Morsi to back armed rebels to sabotage the dam’s construction. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s putative next president, warned Ethiopia last summer the country might resort to military action to stop the dam, and earlier this month he discussed the dam’s threats in a visit with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Egypt’s fears stem from the dam’s possible impacts on the Nile as it flows downstream through Sudan and eventually to the Mediterranean. The Nile provides both water for Egyptian agriculture, and also electricity through Egypt’s own Aswan dam.
The big problem: There has been no public discussion of the downstream impacts of the Ethiopian project. An international panel of experts, including representatives from Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, presented a report last summer to the three governments, but it has not been made public.
Leaks of the report suggested that Egyptian power generation could indeed suffer — but the lack of clarity muddies the issue even for water experts, because it is unclear just how quickly Ethiopia might move to fill the dam’s reservoir after construction is finished. Filling it sooner would definitely choke water flows downstream, but would enable power generation more quickly; filling it gradually would push back the potential benefits of the dam for decades. Ethiopia has spoken publicly of filling the dam’s reservoir in five or six years.
"There’s a suggestion (in the panel report) that the electricity generation at the Aswan Dam could be affected quite significantly," Michael Hammond, a water engineer at the University of Exeter, told FP.
"However, it’s inherently uncertain because we don’t know whether we’ll have ten wet years or ten dry years during the filling process," he said.
Jennifer Veilleux, a PhD candidate at Orgeon State University who has done extensive field work on the impacts of the Blue Nile dam, notes that Egyptian fretting about the dam’s impact on agriculture tend to focus on poor farmers. But Egypt has used the abundant Nile waters to become a major exporter of water-thirsty crops, such as cotton, which in turn has given Egypt the highest level of economic development among all Nile Basin countries.
"Why does Egypt have the right to use the Nile for economic development, yet the Ethiopians don’t?" she asks.